As chairman of one of Kettering Council’s Scrutiny committees I recent proposed that the committee looked at whether or not some recent decisions taken by the council’s ruling executive committee were being taken correctly, and that we were happy they were made in the best possible way.
For some time now, more and more decisions of the Council’s Executive Committee have been taken in private when the Chairman (the Leader of the Council) has decided to exclude the press and members of the public, along with any other councillor who is not on the Conservative controlled committee, under rules to make the item ‘private and confidential’.
These decisions have included extending the contract to run our swimming pool and leisure facilities to a private company, and to buy land and property as investments so they can be rented out to make money.
It is right that some items or the details within some items are dealt with in private, such as when details of an individual are being discussed or perhaps when commercial negotiations are going on and the council doesn’t want its position to be known to other parties (when negotiating a price or bidding against other parties for example). But for some time these occurrences have been getting more and more common and I started to worry this was becoming the normal position rather than these confidential rules just being used when there was no way around it.
The Council's rule book clearly states that there should be a presumption that things are done publically and transparently, so I looked further at the rule book and it seemed obvious to me that he issues did not fall under the definition of confidential and it wasn’t clear to me if they would have fallen under any of the seven categories that could be used to exempt items from public meetings.
I was further concerned that hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money (maybe more, I don’t know as my colleagues and I weren’t allowed to stay for the discussions) was being spent without a proper business case being prepared. The sort of thing I would want to know is how much is something costing and how is this being financed and at what cost along with details of how much revenue is it expected to raise and when?
I consequently asked the committee if they would agree to look at whether the rules for items being taken as private items were being used correctly and to scrutinise the decisions themselves to make sure they were good decisions taken against a robust business case.
I also pointed out that I am 100% in favour of councils using (and even borrowing) capital money for investment to bring about further revenue streams that could help mitigate the cuts to funding that councils have had from central government now and in the future, but only if the figures add up! Fairly straight forward questions as far as I could see and I didn’t expect the response I got.
My suggestion was greeted with open mouthed disbelief from the Conservative members of the committee. I was told that I was “questioning the integrity of the executive” and being “disrespectful” and that I should just “trust them to make the right decisions”, and it was beyond the role of the scrutiny committee to look into such things.
I totally disagree! It is exactly the role of the scrutiny committee to look at, and question the decisions made by the executive. That’s why scrutiny committees were set up in the first place! I explained that scrutiny was based on the influential select committees at parliament and was an integral part of the checks and balances arrangement of decision making.
All to no avail I’m afraid as there is a majority of Conservative Councillors on the committee and they were therefore easily able to block my suggestion. This is a real shame because this is exactly the sort of work the committee should be doing, and the role of back-bench councillors of all political parties is supposed to be working together to ensure the executive committee is held to account, not so much as an enemy but as a critical friend because it would be to the executive that we would have reported our findings and any comments or suggestions we may have had.
I’m afraid it seems that in Kettering at least, we have some way to go before effective scrutiny of council decisions can take place.